Commentary Magazine


Are Rick Santorum’s Liberal Economic Preferences Really Smart Politics?

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul earned quite a bit of well-deserved grief when he bizarrely and baselessly accused his fellow Republicans of giving life to the ISIS threat. He does, however, deserve quite a bit of credit for advancing the Republican Party’s agenda both culturally and politically in a way that other Republicans do not.

Paul’s deft defense of his principled pro-life stance compelled the political press to turn the tables on Democratic figures like Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who traditionally demagogues the issue of abortion rights unchecked by a critical media. What’s more, the junior Kentucky senator’s devotion to the cause of minority outreach is exemplary. Both Paul’s mission and his style of execution are worthy of emulation, and the entire 2016 Republican field would do well to consider following his lead.

It is, however, objectively true that Paul’s foreign policy prescriptions do not reflect consensus opinion among his party’s voters. If Rand Paul regards the 2003 Iraq War and the ensuing aftermath as a mistake, he shares that opinion with only 28 percent of his fellow Republicans, according to a Quinnipiac University survey released on Thursday. By contrast, 78 percent of self-identified Democrats share the view that the Iraq War was a mistake. The senator’s views on the war and its still reverberating impacts are more closely aligned with the opposition than the members of his own party.

Similarly, another Republican presidential aspirant has determined to tether his political fortunes to a set of policy positions that could be, or at least should be, out of step with the rest of his party.

Sen. Rick Santorum is generally known for his socially conservative views on a variety of divisive subjects like abortion and same-sex marriage, but it is his economic vision that most defines him as a Republican presidential candidate.

“Regardless of what people think about Rick, and I know a lot of people in Manhattan may not like him, he’s got the best message — the best economic message — for Republicans,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough insisted on Friday. Santorum had just joined the MSNBC panel where discussed his economic platform, much of which he espoused in 2012. Some of Santorum’s policy preferences include providing tax incentives to manufacturers, eliminating tax breaks for firms that contract out or ship manufacturing work abroad, casting a skeptical eye toward free trade, and hiking the federal minimum wage.

On the most divisive free trade agreements, it would be difficult to identify where Santorum’s policy preferences diverge from those of Vermont’s self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. In the U.S. Senate, Santorum voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement. Apparently, his views on free trade have not changed in the last 22 years. Though he told Breitbart reporter Matthew Boyle that he generally favors trade, Santorum remains opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement because the president who would be negotiating the deal “has not proven to be reliable or trustworthy.” But the former senator objected to NAFTA not because Bill Clinton would sign it (many of the terms were negotiated during George H. W. Bush’s administration), but because it would “produce pockets of winners and losers across the country” and his state would be in the latter group.

In 2014, Santorum told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that his party’s opposition to hiking the minimum wage “makes no sense,” and added that he believes at least 7 and preferably 9 percent of the nation should be covered by the minimum wage. “Let’s not make this argument that we’re for the blue collar guy but we’re against any minimum wage hike ever,” Santorum said. The presumption that a minimum wage hike helps workers rather than creates incentives for their employers to automate and thus eliminate their positions is fallacious.

Santorum’s policy preferences are based not in sound market economics, but in a gauzy and romantic reflection on an idealized American past epitomized by a manufacturing-based economy that no longer exists. To sustain that fantasy, Santorum would use tax breaks, trade impediments, and market-distorting incentives to retain the low-skill employment opportunities that have already largely gone overseas. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Scarborough embraced the GOP candidate with the most programmatically liberal economic positions in the race.

There are some who contend that Santorum’s policy preferences might not be economically conservative, but they at least smart politics. Republicans suffer from the dubious but prolific perception that theirs is the party of the rich, and Santorum is focused squarely on attracting middle and even low-income voters. There’s just one problem with this theory: The voters Santorum are trying to attract are already in the GOP’s corner.

As National Journal’s Ron Brownstein observed, the majority of the Republican Party’s gains since 2010 have come from predominantly blue-collar areas of the country with a majority white or aging population. “These voters, and particularly those well above the poverty line, began to shift toward the GOP decades ago, but in recent years that shift has become progressively more pronounced,” Emerging Democratic Majority co-author John Judis wrote of the working-class white voters who primarily occupy “blue-collar and lower-income service jobs.” Indeed, one of the most staggering developments of the Obama era is that states like Wisconsin and Michigan, places where the labor movement in America was born, are now Right to Work states. As the labor union movement has dissolved, so has the Republican Party’s appeal to traditionally pro-labor constituencies.

If one were comparing outreach strategies, it’s hard not to conclude that Rand Paul’s is infinitely more valuable to the GOP than is Santorum’s. The former Pennsylvania senator is reaching out to voters who are already receptive to the Republican message.

If Santorum did not hold traditionally conservative views on value issues as well as on foreign policy, it would not be unfair to question whether his policy preferences are a good fit for his party. His economic philosophy is not all that dramatically divergent from the left. Perhaps this is why, now that he is contending with stiff competition for the values vote from candidates like Mike Huckabee, Santorum struggles to even register in the polls of Republican primary voters despite the fact that he won 11 states and nearly 20 percent of their vote just three and a half years ago.

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